The Environment Bill has been enhanced and reintroduced to Parliament, following the government's promise to tackle climate change and restore the natural environment. The enhanced Bill will stop the exportation of plastic waste to developing countries, boost the recycling system, restore natural habitats, and introduce measures to improve the quality of air and water. The Bill will also create legally binding environmental improvement targets and establish a new independent Office for Environmental Protection in order to hold the government to account on their promise to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The Bill will also include a duty to review the developments in environmental legislation globally, and the findings will be used to enhance UK environmental law.
What is the history of the bill?
The Bill was formally introduced to Parliament in October 2019 but did not make substantial progress before the general election, and when Parliament was dissolved in early November, progress on all Bills under consideration was lost.
Following the opening of the new Parliament, the Environment Bill was reintroduced on 30 January 2020.
Despite having been introduced (for the first time) only a few months ago, various elements of the Environment Bill have been under consideration and discussion for some time; for example an early draft of the provisions relating to the establishment and functioning of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) were released for consultation in May 2018 and these have been the subject of a number of articles, discussions and conference plenaries.
What are the key provisions?
The Bill covers a lot of ground and is ambitious and bold. Much of its content has been driven by Brexit and the need to establish new structures and controls now that the UK is no longer part of the EU and therefore no longer subject to scrutiny by the European Commission.
Principal elements of the Bill include:
- target setting-the Bill empowers the Secretary of State, having taken advice from independent experts, to set measurable targets relating to the natural environment and people's enjoyment of it. Areas which may be subject to targets will include, air quality and particulate matter, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction. The Bill contains duties to meet and report on the targets set
- environmental improvement plans-the Bill requires the Secretary of State to prepare an environmental improvement plan, of at least 15 years length that will set out the steps that the government must take to improve people's enjoyment of the natural environment. Progress must be reported annually and revisions proposed
- the OEP-the Bill establishes the OEP, which will act independently of government and will be tasked with monitoring and reporting on the government's environmental improvement plan and environmental targets, as well as the implementation of environmental law. The OEP will have powers to investigate and commence proceedings against public authorities for failing to comply with environmental law
- waste-the Bill lays the groundwork for the introduction of new producer responsibility obligations and thus a move to a more circular economy where resources are reused rather than used once prior to disposal-expect new schemes for textiles, fishing gear, and construction waste in coming year. In addition, the Bill provides the powers for the establishment of a deposit return scheme which will provide for bottles and cans to be returned, once drinks have been consumed, for payment
- air quality-the Bill sets out a power for the Secretary of State to introduce regulations which will enable the recall of motor vehicles that fail to meet environmental standards. The Bill also amends existing legislation to govern more strictly domestic solid fuel burning (wood burning stoves etc), which the government notes is the single largest contributor of fine particulate matter emissions
- water-the Bill includes provisions to reform abstraction licensing, including powers to vary or revoke licences without the payment of compensation. A number of requirements for water companies have also been introduced by the Bill to bolster planning for future water supplies and wastewater/drainage networks
- biodiversity and nature protection-one of the headline proposals within the Bill relates to nature and biodiversity. A new system will be introduced, establishing a register of biodiversity gain sites-land which is subject to a conservation covenant or planning obligation and which is to be managed for the purpose of habitat enhancement-and establishing a system of biodiversity credits-enabling developers to 'purchase' credits in biodiversity gain sites
- REACH-the Bill gives the Secretary of State power to amend the UK's chemicals regulations. Following the UK's departure from the EU, and particularly following the end of the transition period, amendments may be needed to the national rules relating to the management of chemicals and their use within products. Given how critical the effective regulations of chemicals is for business in the UK, these amendment powers will likely prove critical for maintaining 'business as usual' post-Brexit
What were the key areas of scrutiny in the October 2019 version of the bill?
There was limited scope for detailed debate and the original Environment Bill had only a short life. Members of Parliament were supportive of the Bill and I expect they will continue to be. However, based on the earlier debates it is likely that MPs will be particularly interested in the OEP's remit, independence, accountability and funding, as well as those areas which 'touch' the general public directly, such as plastics, tree-planting and air-quality.
Are we likely to see any more changes made before Royal Assent?
The Bill has had its first reading, but the date for the second reading has yet to be announced. Following a second reading, it will move to the Committee stage where it will be examined in more detail prior to a third reading. Once it has passed the Commons, it will be passed to the House of Lords.
I do not expect very substantial changes to the Bill-the key details will be in the statutory instruments that follow-and I expect that the government will be keen to push the Bill through Parliament. It is a high-profile piece of legislation and is likely to be seen as an indicator of both the government's green credentials and its ability to make early progress on its reforms programme.
For further information on the Bill and the key differences from the October 2019 draft see Practice Note: Environment Bill-snapshot.
This article was first published by LexisNexis.